Chronic Stress and Your Heart

Riti Patel, MD
MLHC Lankenau Heart Group

As much as we may like to, we cannot avoid stress. It is a part of most of our lives.  Stress, however, can actually be beneficial. Our body’s reaction to stress is a primal instinct designed to protect us.  When the brain perceives a stressful situation, it responds by amping up systems vital to escaping a threat—for example, the respiratory or circulatory systems—and suppressing nonessential functions like reproduction and digestion. Two hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, are responsible for triggering this response. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, raises your blood pressure and boosts your energy supply, while cortisol releases glucose into the blood stream, boosts your brain’s use of it, and increases the body’s ability to repair tissue.

But consistent exposure to stress—because of a tough job, financial strife or divorce, for instance—exacts a toll on the body, including our heart health. The causes of stress may have changed over the centuries, but the body still responds in the same way. During periods of chronic stress (or for people who manage day-to-day stress poorly), the body remains in a heightened state, which includes higher levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. Simply speaking, your body doesn’t have a chance to relax and normalize—and that’s not a good thing.

While the link between heart disease and stress isn’t exactly clear, scientists believe that the increased heart rate and blood pressure that comes with chronic stress can damage artery walls, putting people at greater risk for heart attack or stroke. Elevated cortisol levels can also disrupt your metabolism, increase blood sugar, raise cholesterol and deposit fat around the abdomen. Compounding the physiological response are the lifestyle choices many of us make when we’re under stress. From over-eating to smoking and drinking to vegging on the couch instead of exercising, unhealthy habits can be harmful to our overall heart health. Stress is also closely linked to poor sleep habits–and sleep is essential to functioning well.

Eliminating stress from your life is pretty much impossible, so how can you mitigate its negative impact on your body? Healthy living is certainly a good antidote—regular exercise, eating well and getting enough sleep are important habits to maintain when you experience periods of duress. Learning mind-body techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery can also help you remain calm when confronting stressors. And lastly, if you feel like you’re chronically stressed, evaluate your life and try to pinpoint your biggest triggers. It may be time to make some changes—your body and heart will thank you for it.

Join Dr. Patel live at Lankenau’s next Wednesday Web Chat, June 26 at 7 p.m.: Chronic Stress: The Real Impact on Your Health & Your Heart. Dr. Patel will also respond to your confidential questions about the impact of eating disorders on the heart. Sign up now.

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